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Career Tips

Supporting grieving colleagues

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
September 29, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 32


Credit: Shutterstock

Losing a loved one is difficult and can be more so if you have to spend long periods, like your workday, acting as if it didn’t happen. Organizations that provide proactive and continuous support for grieving employees are healthier for everyone.

Address the elephant in the room. What action you take will depend on your relationship to the bereaved. Many people fear saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing. A simple check-in of “Are you OK?” can be helpful. It allows the other person to take the lead in discussing personal—or impersonal—issues, as they prefer.

A supervisor or close colleague should ask the bereaved if they’d like the news shared and to what level of detail, as well as if they are open to condolences or want to remain focused on work when at work. Preferences vary and should be communicated to all team members to avoid overwhelming the bereaved.

Take cues from the bereaved in offering support—take on specific work, field incoming requests, or sit and listen to stories about their loved one. Ask permission before taking action.

If you send a condolence card or email, reassure the person it is OK not to respond. In most cases, religious discussions should be avoided.

Use your resources. Know your organization’s policies around grief and loss. Many organizations specify their paid bereavement leave, such as parental bereavement leave; leave for losses not specified in the policy are often left up to the department, supervisor, or employee. Supervisors can give additional time off, but that allowance must be extended to everyone. Grief is personal and a “one-size-fits-all” policy may not work. Identifying workplace resources for the bereaved may be helpful, especially if they are hard to find.

Grief is not linear. An anniversary, comment, or song may precipitate feelings of grief. Bereavement leave may be appropriate during ensuing months as estates are settled, death anniversaries, birthdays, or other unexpected times arise.

Grief can disrupt sleep schedules, making it difficult for a person to concentrate and maintain a professional appearance. Reduced productivity can be expected.

Do something positive. Plant a tree, make a donation, or take up a collection for a memorial. If the loved one was known to colleagues, organize a memorial fund or fundraiser for a cause they supported. This may also be a good time to review and update your organization’s bereavement policies as necessary.

When it’s a colleague. Sometimes the loved one is a colleague, and many in the organization are grieving. Supporting coworkers while grieving adds another layer of difficulty. Remember: not everyone grieves in the same way or at the same time. Ask for help when you need it, offer support when you can, and don’t be offended if others are on different timelines.

Dealing with a loss is never easy. But both practical and emotional support can make it easier for everyone and help your coworkers through a vulnerable time in their lives.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published monthly in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to


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